When Maria Huang and her husband learned that they’d been assigned economy class seats on their 12-hour flight home on KLM from their Viking cruise, they were concerned.
They are both senior citizens who frequently need to get up from their seats. Both require sufficient space to maneuver themselves into and out of airplane seats, which doesn’t exist in economy class.
As the regular economy class seats don’t provide enough maneuvering room given the Huang’s limited mobility, they immediately upgraded to four Economy Comfort seats — two for each of them. The upgraded seats they reserved were configured in two-seat rows in the cabin of the airplane KLM planned to use for their flight, so that each spouse would occupy one seat in the row, next to an empty seat. The seats were also close to a lavatory.
Then they went online to KLM’s website to check their seat assignments. They discovered that the seats they had confirmed — and paid for — were no longer available on their return flight. KLM had resold them. Huang immediately called KLM, but was told that “the best KLM could do” for her and her husband was to offer them two Economy Comfort seats in one two-seat row and two Economy Comfort seats in one three-seat row. Whichever spouse was seated in the three-seat row would have to share the row with and maneuver around another passenger whenever leaving or returning to his or her seat.
This was not acceptable to the Huangs. They asked their travel agent to contact KLM and get their Economy Comfort seats back. Their agent called KLM’s administrative office, but got no response.
Although the Huangs or their travel agent might have escalated their complaint using our company contacts for KLM, they contacted our advocates for assistance in getting back the Economy Comfort seats they paid for.
Huang’s case and its resolution raise the question of what compensation suffices when an airline doesn’t provide passengers what they reserved, potentially causing them hours of pain and suffering.
Were the Huangs entitled to the specific seats they reserved?
According to KLM’s contract of carriage, KLM doesn’t guarantee that passengers will be seated in the seats they reserve:
The Carrier shall make reasonable efforts to meet seat allocation requests but cannot guarantee the allocation of a given seat, even if the Reservation is confirmed for said seat. The Carrier reserves the right to change the seat allocation at any time, including after boarding, for operating, security or safety reasons, or for reasons of Force Majeure.
So KLM’s “take it or leave it” response to the Huangs is consistent with its contract of carriage.
But given that the Huangs purchased Economy Comfort seats in specific configurations for health reasons because of their ages and physical conditions, our advocates decided to reach out to KLM on their behalf.
KLM explained that:
The day before their return to Los Angeles the passengers were rerouted on Air France due to the unforeseen cancellation … for technical reasons. The Economy Comfort product is not offered on Air France and regrettably, similar types of seats could not be provided at the last moment on this fully booked flight. As per the terms and conditions of our seat options, they are eligible to a refund for this service not being provided for this flight. While this may be requested directly on our Website through the refund form, I have requested it on their behalf. The amount will be posted on the account of the credit card used for payment. … We reviewed this situation in light of Subpart F of 14 CFR Part 382 (Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel) of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which defines the requirements of airlines in seating accommodations, and have concluded it does not constitute a violation thereof. Nonetheless, we must advise that the passengers have the right to contact the U.S. Department of Transportation if you want that agency to consider further action on their behalf.
KLM also offered a $100 voucher off the cost of any future airfares for flights taken within one year.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the Huangs’ problem. Air France does provide a seating class similar to KLM’s Economy Comfort called Premium Voyageur, and it should have booked the Huangs in that class of seating on the rerouted flight. If it couldn’t do so, then KLM should have put the Huangs on a flight that could accommodate those needs by way of adequate customer service.
A refund of the Economy Comfort fees and a $100 voucher don’t compensate the Huangs for the seats they needed for physical reasons on a 12-hour flight – regardless of whether they are being legally discriminated against according to U.S. law.
And the Huangs don’t plan to fly on KLM in the future, so they have no use for a $100 voucher.